Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Are We Lowering The Bar Of Discipleship?

Author's note: I have re-titled this post and corrected a couple of phrases in the post to better reflect my intent based on my blog friend JMG's initial comment.

This past weekend my family rented a remote cabin owned and operated by a Mennonite family. It was wonderful not having television or internet access. I looked through some of the books supplied with the cabin. They had several books about the Amish and Mennonite faith. One of these books, 20 Most Asked Questions about the Amish and Mennonites by Merle and Phyllis Good, caught my interest. It was a well written book and dealt honestly with these two groups. They are people that truly love God and show this with their lives, yet they are not different than any other Christian group in that they are human and fail to live perfectly. One thing I liked about this short book was it provided a quick background on the emergence of the Amish and Mennonite faith. They stem from the Anabaptist reformation in the first quarter of 16th century Europe which had broken away from the original reformation led by Martin Luther. They specifically date their emergence to Jan. 21, 1525 in Zurich, Switzerland.

The suffering servanthood of Christ is their base model. Their first attempt at a statement of faith was 2 years after the movement began and is referred to as the Schleitheim Confession of Faith. “1) The one and only God has revealed Himself as existing eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; 2) The Bible is the authoritative Word of God, and the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament; 3) God has created and continues to sustain all things; 4) Humankind is sinful, needs atonement through the Lord Jesus Christ and is free to choose or reject salvation by grace through faith (children are in the kingdom of God until old enough to decide); 5) The church is the visible expression of those who voluntarily commit themselves to a life of holiness and love, open to each other’s counsel and discipline; and 6) Christ will personally return to judge the world, raise the dead, and usher in the glorious future of the kingdom of God.” [pg 16]

That is almost word for word many sermons I have heard preached in the Church of Christ. And so many of our group think we are so unique. Maybe our eyes aren’t as open as we like to think. Well, enough good-natured poking at my group. The point of this post was not this snippet of Christian history. I read a few passages in the book that caused me to ponder some of culture’s progressive or modern approaches to Christianity.

Does anyone ever join them? Does anyone ever leave? We know of no group within the highly diverse Mennonite-Amish family which “outsiders” cannot join. The only question is whether the applicant is truly willing to meet the group’s requirements of Christian discipleship. The greater the requirements for membership in the group, the fewer the members who join from the larger society. Conversely, the more relaxed the requirements, the more “outsiders” who join the fellowship (unless the expectations become so low that there’s no reason to join). [pg 22]

What may a fellowship require? From the beginning, this question concerned the Mennonites. On this point they broke with the reformers, and the Amish broke from them. Is it worthwhile to belong to a fellowship where there are no standards of belief and conduct? If the church members have a right to establish expectations of each other, how are those standards agreed upon, taught, and actually enforced? And should members, who fall short of the standards, be asked to withdraw from membership? [pg 22-24]

The ban and shunning: In a society where freedom of any sort is set on a romantic pedestal, requirements of commitment can appear cruel. To an Old Order person, however, lack of commitment and standards seems cruel and heartless. The early Anabaptists believed that the New Testament taught the church to discipline its members; that if after long, loving counsel a member in sin refused to repent, that person should be excommunicated from the fellowship until he did repent. Otherwise the fellowship would eventually have no standards. The purpose of excommunicating a sinful member is to bring that member back into the fellowship. It is not an attempt to harm or ruin the individual. The actual number of members excommunicated by these groups is very small. [pg 24-25]

The point of my blog is not to raise a discussion on excommunication, banning, or shunning. These passages made me wonder if our more modern attempts at reaching a wider audience are inadvertently lowering the bar of expectations of Christian discipleship down the value of our faith. Are Community Churches, in letting go of some of the restrictions of their prior affiliation, reducing accountability and discipleship in the process? Even for churches such as the one I attend which has retained its Church of Christ affiliation, wrestles with such a question regularly.

Does the phrase, “no pain, no gain” have merit in considering our understanding of Christ and discipleship? I do not believe that suffering in and of itself has much merit. But suffering is a part of the Christian life and we must be prepared to handle it with Holiness. Discipline is the root of discipleship. Can we have the faith of Christ and live His example without discipline? Are we absolving ourselves of such discipline in our modern Christian community?

Are we preaching, and much more importantly, teaching, instructing, and nurturing the kind of discipleship related in one the earliest accounts of Anabaptist martyrdom. They were a group heavily persecuted by both the Church of Rome and the Reformers. Dirk Willems, a Dutch Anabaptist in the late 1560’s, was chased by sheriff who wanted to arrest him because of his faith. Willems crossed the ice of a river safely; the sheriff fell in. Willems went back and helped his persecutor to safety. The sheriff promptly arrested Willems who was then burned at the stake in 1569. [pg 30]

In addition, do we promote accountability? Do modern, wider-audience church methods allow for real, intimate Christian communities that build deep, interactive relationships? This is the most important question. Because without a relationship, you cannot ask for accountability and you certainly cannot have individual acceptance of accountability. Without accountability buy-in and without relationships, you cannot provide loving discipline. People will not allow themselves to be held accountable or accept discipline from others that they do not know, trust, respective, or love.


JMG said...

These passages made me wonder if our more modern attempts at reaching a wider audience are inadvertently watering down the value of our faith.

Jesus told his disciples to go out and preach the gospel and make disciples in all the (Gentile) nations. Obviously, he wasn't worried that bringing in more numbers and more diversity would "water down" the faith.

I think that too often, churches or fellowships place too much emphasis on adherence to specific doctrine rather than on encouraging genuine discipleship. We forget that Jesus boiled the entire law of Moses down into two commands: Love God and love your neighbor. It was the Pharisees and religious leaders who were concerned with making sure that everyone followed "the rules," and it was the Pharisees that Jesus spoke harshly against.

I think the story of Dirk Willems that you cited is a good illustration of how Pharisaic tendencies continued. Churches, in an attempt to keep their doctrines from being watered down, burned people at the stake for not adhering to certain doctrines, but, as seen in Willems' unfortunate case, they did not recognize true discipleship. The same type of thing still happens today, as I noted in a blog post earlier this year.

Because without a relationship, you cannot ask for accountability and you certainly cannot have individual acceptance of accountability. Without accountability buy-in and without relationships, you cannot provide loving discipline.

You raise a good point here. I think that church communities need to ask themselves what their greater goal is. What do they want to accomplish by attracting more and more members? What types of relationships are they wanting to build with the new members? It seems that many churches have no real goal other than to bring in more and more people, but what do you do with the people once you get them? What is the value of focusing on "missions" if that's the only real goal of the church? When a church "courts" (for lack of a better word) a new member, does the church have a stated goal that the member can help strive toward? If there's no goal that the church community is striving for, then what is the point of discipline, if all someone is expected to do is go get more new members? If, however, church communities really are communities of people who develop genuine relationships with each other--loving God and loving each other--then discipline isn't an issue because when people see a need within the community, they do what needs to be done to help meet that need.

Tony Arnold said...

Great comments JMG. One thing I realized from you comments is that I could easily mislead someone in what I was asking. Watering down was a bad phrase. I did not mean that a larger group of Christian was a bad thing, or speaking of any diversity issues.

I really was challenging whether we risked loosening the requirements for discipleship.

I think your comments should aid in some interesting discussion here if I still have any readers left.

jettybetty said...

To answer your question--YES!

However, (and I could be wrong on this) I think the strategy some churches are using aren't all bad.

I see churches seeking to attract a crowd with new, exciting, seeker-friendly services and activities. After all, people do need Jesus--that's way they introduce people.

Then, for discipleship--they really need to be in a smallish-study-accountability group or it's really hard to catch the discipleship thing.

I do think all believers should be disciples--and with this *strategy* (and I don't really like calling it a strategy)--some will fall through the cracks.

However, the Holy Spirit will convict and teach some--and they will become disciples.

The cabin sounds wonderful. No internet. I think I need that from time to time!

Tony Arnold said...

It was so relaxing without TV and Internet. It is amazing, but trees, birds, water, etc, just are not as stressfull as fooling with technology.

This coming from an former electrical engineer.

Thanks for the comments JB. You hit the nail on the head with the small group importance. Big churches reaching big audiences may be a good thing for reaching people, but if it is not followed up with smaller group relationships it is a lot of energy spent without much backup.

jettybetty said...

It's just so good to read your thoughts again Tony!

JMG said...

It's just so good to read your thoughts again Tony!

I second that!

On the relationships idea: If we look at the close relationships in the early church, we see that the early Christians formed a close bond based upon their shared experience of trying to survive. They had a common goal of staying alive and making a living, and this could only be accomplished by depending upon each other.

Today's American Christians don't have nearly that much at stake, so it's no wonder that we don't often see non-related church-goers forming familial-type bonds.

Tony Arnold said...

JB and JMG: thanks for the encouragement.

JMG: I think you make an excellent point JMG. Would you consider this an element of Christian complacency?

JMG said...

Would you consider this an element of Christian complacency?

Well, yes, I'd say so, but I can't really fault them for it because today's Christians, for the most part, have never been in a situation where it is advantageous to live a life of complete discipleship. I would imagine that Christians in who lived in the Great Depression practiced, out of necessity, an active form of daily discipleship--sharing with each other and mutually supporting each other as a community. However, I'm sure that this form of discipleship was not limited to Christians. Groups of people pulled together to help each other out and ensure each other's survival--but they probably didn't call it discipleship.

Today plenty of people practice what is essentially discipleship even though they wouldn't call it that. They would simply see it as doing the right thing by helping each other out with the problems of daily existence.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Christians don't have a lock on discipleship, and in fact, some non-Christians may even practice discipleship better than many Christians.